Americans like their guns. Some of this interestin guns originates from television programs and movies where policemen, cowboys and villains are wearing their guns with delight and constantly shooting at each other. The impression from these images must have been powerful, because the US continues to have millions of gun owners who shoot them often, while hunting or at ranges. The aspect not communicated to these many gun users is that the individuals firing guns on television and in motion pictures probably ended up deaf, or battling with serious hearing disabilities.

Hearing loss from noise exposure, termed noise-induced hearing loss or NIHL, is among the most common types of hearing impairment. The harm done to hearing by loud noises has two primary types – damage caused by transient high noise levels (e.g. explosions or gunfire) and damage caused by sustained high noise levels (e.g. heavy machinery sounds).

The loudness of sounds is measured in decibels – total silence is zero decibels, a whisper is 15 decibels, and normal conversation is 50 to 60 decibels. The logarithmic nature of the decibels scale is challenging for many people. 50 decibels is twice as loud as 40, and 60 is four times as loud as 40 decibels. Sustained exposure to sounds above 90 decibels can lead to irreversible, noise-induced hearing loss in a matter of a couple of weeks. Direct exposure to even short periods of louder noises (for example a jet engine or rock concert at 120 decibels) can result in irreversible hearing loss in just a few minutes. Gunshots come in at 140 decibels.

There is one portion of the gun debate, that everybody agrees on. Gun devotees, average people, and hearing care specialists all concur that everyone shooting a gun should have on ear protection. What sort of ear protection is ideal depends to a certain degree on where you are shooting.

If the majority of your shooting is at outdoor or indoor gun ranges, the best option at a reasonable price is some type of over-the-ear “muff” style headphones that inhibit transient noise not just from reaching the inner ear but also from getting to the cochlear bones in back of the ear. The over-the-ear muff can be paired with in-the-ear foam ear plugs for additional protection. Many range shooters will choose in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or higher to use with their muffs. The most effective protection – and unfortunately the most expensive – is offered by headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. Electronic noise-cancelling headphones have the additional benefit of enabling you to hear normal-volume conversations while blocking out the transient gunfire sounds.

If you like firing guns, before your next trip to the firingrange, talk to your hearing care professional about ear protection. They’ll likely have some specific advice for you; listen to it if you value your hearing.